A funereal air surrounds this film, as it was made during the final flowering of the MGM musical, at which point the studio was canceling its contracts with nearly all of its legendary contract players. Hit the Deck (1955) marked the final MGM appearances of Jane Powell, Tony Martin and J. Carrol Naish. Ann Miller would make only two more films for the studio - The Opposite Sex (1956) and The Great American Pastime (1956) - and Vic Damone would make one, Kismet (1955). Only Debbie Reynolds and Russ Tamblyn survived the cut; both stars would remain at MGM through the early 1960s.
Based on his athletic dancing in films like Hit the Deck (1955) and Tom Thumb (1958), most audiences assume that Russ Tamblyn was a trained dancer. In fact, the actor had no history of dance training. He was a skilled tumbler, and that was originally slated to be his singular contribution to Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954). But his natural movement ability was so accomplished that he was incorporated more and more into the dance sequences. This would ultimately culminate in his being cast as Riff in the film version of West Side Story (1961), one of the most dance-heavy musicals in Broadway history.
The funhouse sequence featuring Debbie Reynolds and Russ Tamblyn lasts four and a half minutes on screen, and took three days to film.
This film did poorly at the box office resulting in a loss for MGM of $454,000 ($4.1M in 2016) according to studio records.
The film's original soundtrack album was one of many that successfully hid the identities of the ghost singers who dubbed vocals for non-singing stars. For all songs in which Russ Tamblyn's character appears, the liner notes on the album cover use the preface "As portrayed in the picture by..." so as to prevent listing the actual singer whose voice is being heard.
Although he appears in a nominal, non-singing role, Gene Raymond performed in many movie musicals during his tenure as one of the most recognizable matinee idols of the 1930s, including Hooray For Love (1935), Walking on Air (1936), The Smartest Girl in Town (1936), That Girl From Paris (1936), The Life of the Party (1937) and, most notably, Flying Down to Rio (1933) and Sadie McKee (1934), in which he introduced "All I Do is Dream of You."
The undisputed highlight of this film is the battleship finale reprise of "Hallelujah!" which was featured prominently twenty years later toward the climax of That's Entertainment! (1974). The sequence dazzled audiences not only with its scope and movement but also with Jeff Alexander's intricate vocal arrangements for the soloists and a battalion of men's voices. Astonishingly, this number was not included on the MGM Records soundtrack album from the film, and was not released commercially until nearly twenty years later on the soundtrack album of That's Entertainment!
In "Keepin' Myself For You," once the dance break ends and Tony Martin steals his way into the song from an off-stage microphone, that's Jane Powell's voice dubbing the false start for Ann Miller.
In "The Lady From the Bayou," Ann Miller's wailing notes at the end of her vocal were dubbed by Kitty White.
Eight of ten songs made the transition from stage to screen: "Join the Navy," "Loo-Loo," "Lucky Bird," "Sometimes I'm Happy," "A Kiss or Two" (originally titled "What's a Kiss Between Friends?" on stage), "The Harbor of My Heart" (serving as the instrumental basis for the funhouse sequence), "Why, Oh Why?" and "Hallelujah!" The only songs to be dropped from the stage score were "Shore Leave" and "Utopia." Vincent Youmans and Leo Robin reconvened to write three additional songs for the first film version, produced by RKO in 1930: "Nothing Could Be Sweeter," "An Armful of You" and "Keepin' Myself For You." The latter two were incorporated into the MGM remake, the first as an instrumental, the second as a production number for Ann Miller. "More Than You Know" was interpolated from Youmans' stage show "Great Day" (1929) and "I Know That You Know" was borrowed from "Oh, Please" (1926). "The Lady From the Bayou" was derived from an unpublished Youmans trunk song, with fresh lyrics by Leo Robin. The only non-Youmans song in the film is "Ciribiribin," which was interpolated solely as a showcase for Kay Armen.
Vic Damone's dress blue uniform has red chevrons and service stripes. This indicates that his character has had a less than illustrious Navy career. A Navyman with at least twelve consecutive years of good conduct would have worn gold chevrons and service stripes.
Tony Martin's role was originated on stage in 1927 by Charles King, who, two years later, made history as the star of the first all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing cinemusical, the Academy Award-winning Broadway Melody (1929).
The original show opened on Broadway April 25, 1927 at the Belasco Theatre, where it ran for 352 performances.
All of Russ Tamblyn's vocals were dubbed by Rex Dennis, with the exception of the finale reprise of "Hallelujah!" for which he was dubbed by Clark Burroughs.
With Hit the Deck (1955), Joe Pasternak continued his long-standing tradition of using his films to establish crossover potential for pop and classical performers. Kay Armen had made a splash in nightclubs and recordings, and she received an 'introducing' credit in the main title. While this treatment would result in successful film careers for Deanna Durbin, Jane Powell, Mario Lanza, Kathryn Grayson and Connie Francis, the heavyset Armen did not catch on with movie audiences, despite her pitch-perfect, clarion-like rendering of the dynamic "Hallelujah!"
Much of the magic of the "Hallelujah!" sequence is derived from the almost under-rehearsed feel effected by choreographer Hermès Pan. While MGM was renowned for its slick and perfectly executed musical numbers, "Hallelujah!" is filled with charming improvisations and missteps, including Tony Martin clipping Russ Tamblyn and Vic Damone on their chins as the latter two enter the scene; Tamblyn breaking formation to impulsively slide down the ship's ladder in one of his characteristic tumbling moves; the uneven spacing between the three men as they herald the entrance of the women; the lack of symmetry between Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds' placement as they flank Kay Armen; several of the sailors being off the beat during the ensemble sequences; and Ann Miller breaking the final pose of her dance solo before the camera has lost sight of her. Decades after the fact, "Hallelujah!" stands as one of the most freewheeling and joyous creations in the MGM canon.
Ann Miller's character is named for Ginger Rogers who appeared with Fred Astaire in Follow the Fleet (1936), a loose, much-reworked adaptation of Hit the Deck.
Despite its evergreen score, the show's frivolous libretto has made "Hit the Deck" unrevivable on Broadway. That said, MGM's remake, while not financially successful, inspired a full-blown stage production five years later, becoming the fifth summer attraction at the massive, outdoor Jones Beach Marine Theatre in Long Island, NY. That revival, mounted in 1960 by Guy Lombardo, starred Gene Nelson, Jane Kean and Jules Munshin, with a revised book by Ira Wallach. It was not a success; whereas nearly every other Jones Beach musical ran two consecutive seasons, "Hit the Deck" ran but one.
The 2008 DVD from Warner Home Video contains the audio of a Jane Powell-Vic Damone duet, "Sometimes I'm Happy" (music by Vincent Youmans, lyrics by Irving Caesar). A solo version by Jane is presented in the released film.
Fans who come to this musical on the strength of its breathtaking score or the frequently anthologized battleship finale sequence are often bemused by how underwhelming the film is as a whole. As the studio system crumbled in the late 1950s, one of MGM's coping strategies was to pack as many name-players as possible into a single film in the hope that sheer star power would lure potential moviegoers away from their television sets. This was easy enough to accomplish in films like Deep in My Heart (1954), which utilized specialty musical sequences to showcase its sizable talent roster. In the case of Hit the Deck (1955), a record eleven stars were recruited, and efforts to incorporate all of them into a traditional 'book show' resulted in a contrived, disjointed tale that offered noticeably inadequate screen time for each cast member, particularly Debbie Reynolds, whose character barely figures into the plot.
Following nearly two hours of pedestrian plotting and unimaginative musical staging, audiences are often startled by the effervescent and masterfully crafted finale sequence to the song "Hallelujah!" Indeed, a joy and camaraderie exist between the cast members in this number that is noticeably absent in all that has come before it, no doubt inspired by Robert Van Epps' escalating orchestration and Jeff Alexander's infectious vocal arrangement that backs the cast members.